Thursday, March 10, 2016

Before there were computers in Estonians' homes

This article concentrates on the availability of writing equipment in people's homes in Estonia before Estonia's reindependence.

Until Estonia regained independence in 1991 from the Soviet Union, after which computers gradually began taking a foothold, most people relied on pen and paper, even in organisations. Everyone (if not most people) didn't even have a typewriter.

During the Soviet era, Latin-lettered typewriters were harder to get than typewriters with Cyrillic characters, and students at universities had to submit their works in Russian (at least major works).

And all photocopiers (Xerox and like machines found only in organisations) had to be accounted for to avoid widespread dissemination of 'dangerous' information.

And then there was Samizdat (lit. 'self-publishing' or 'Self-publishing House'), wherein people would retype and carbon-copy banned literature.

One of my schoolteachers told our class, that when she studied at school/university in the 1970s, then ballpoint pens were very fancy; everyone wanted and had to have at least one, and there were even special ballpoint ink vending places, where people would queue up for refills.

Fountain pens and cheap ink pens were widespread, and these were mostly used in schools by students. Specialized simpler fountain pens were used at school to train penmanship.

Rotary-dial telephones were very widespread well into the 1990s.

Usage share of writing equipment in Soviet Estonia. This is a rough estimate with no numbers, and covers the time period of 1980s – early 1990s. (Estonia regained independence in 1991.) As it was, unauthorised copying of software was rampant.
  1. Pencils. — Well, these were everywhere. KOH-I-NOOR from Hungary was the definitive trademark for a plain "HB" (aka No2) pencil. No Soviet-/Eastern Bloc-manufactured pencil ever had an eraser on it.
  2. Fountain pens (primary school level);
  3. Ballpoint pens;
  4. Cyrillic typewriters (always cheaper);
  5. Latin typewriters — because these were harder to get and more expensive. Possibly because they were mostly manufactured in East Germany (DDR). "Erika" comes to mind.
  6. Electric typewriters. Organisations of certain importance and up. I remember at least two in a specialised cabinet of a children's hospital. Very few people had these at home.
  7. Photocopiers. Organisations only. All had to be accounted for.
  8. Home computers (often DYI, 8-bit). Not particularly cheap. Printers were not sold, AFAIK.
  9. General-purpose and school computers. Only 8-bit, and only in selected (favoured) schools. Prohibitively expensive for home use. The Soviet Agat and Estonian-made Juku come to mind. ELORG (a Soviet export organisation) put a $10,000 price sticker for just one "Agat" in 1984. (Oh wait, stickers were not widespread.)
  10. Even some higher institutions of education and research used 8-bit computers, such as Pravetz (Bulgaria) and Robotron (DDR), but not limited to just these. I remember typing in WordStar 3.2 on a Robotron computer at father's workplace. Dot matrix printers were certainly there.
  11. Anything above 8-bit was certainly found in universities and large organisations of importance, such as ministries.

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